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ACS Scholars Program Helped Tashica Williams Amirgholizadeh Find Her Path Through Chemistry To Intellectual Property Law

Diverse military base schools cemented an early interest in science

by Jyllian Kemsley
December 21, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 49

Credit: Courtesy of Tashica Amirgholizadeh
Photo of Tashica Williams Amirgholizadeh.
Credit: Courtesy of Tashica Amirgholizadeh

Tashica Williams Amirgholizadeh credits her parents and their military careers for nurturing and cementing her interest in science at a young age. Today, she serves as a patent litigation attorney at Gilead Sciences.

Her parents were not scientists—her father was an Army pastor and her mother a cook. Nevertheless, they gave her telescopes and microscopes and fostered her desire to understand the way the world works, Amirgholizadeh says.

Likewise, the teachers at military base schools in Germany and elsewhere overseas saw her as just a student who happened to be talented at science and math, and they encouraged her interests, she says. The bases were culturally rich and diverse, and it wasn’t until high school, when she returned to the U.S., that she felt labeled as a “black” student—stereotyped as someone who should not go into science.

She spent high school in California, Hawaii, and Texas. At Seaside High School in California, “I knew I was interested in science and math, but I didn’t quite know how to get on the right path,” Amirgholizadeh says. “I was going to be the first one in my family to go to college, and I was leaning pretty heavily on guidance counselors. When I would talk to them about science, they would always tell me to think about something else.”

Things improved in Hawaii and Texas because she developed friendships with people who had scientists in their families, she says.

For college, Amirgholizadeh chose to go to Baylor University because it fit well both with her strong faith and with her interest in science. Once there, she was advised and taught introductory chemistry by lecturer David Young. “I rose to the top of both sections” of the class, she recalls. “That’s when I knew I had the ability to do chemistry.”

The small department at Baylor was an ideal environment for her, she says. “I got to know my professors, and I wasn’t intimidated. No matter how ridiculous my questions were in my mind, I could ask them,” she says.

Young helped set up Amirgholizadeh to do research with chemistry professor Thomas Franklin. Amirgholizadeh worked with Franklin on electrochemistry projects after her freshman and sophomore years. Franklin in turn encouraged her to apply for the United Negro College Fund/Merck Science Initiative, which led her to intern in medicinal chemistry at Merck & Co. during the summers after her junior and senior years.

It was also during Amir­gholizadeh’s junior and senior years that the ACS Scholars Program had a big impact. “The day I found out I was going to receive the ACS Scholar award, my father and I were in the financial aid office, and I was in tears because I could not figure out how I was going to make up the amount of money I was going to need to stay at Baylor,” she says. “ACS was a godsend.”

She went from Baylor to graduate school at California Institute of Technology, where she studied DNA-mediated charge transport with chemistry professor Jacqueline K. Barton. Caltech was also a “wonderful” experience, Amirgholizadeh says. Nevertheless, she hit a turning point in her fourth year, when she realized that she didn’t want to become a research professor. Nor did she want to work as a scientist in industry.

“This was scary,” she says. “My life up until that point made sense,” and now she was veering off into a world of uncertainty. But she found new role models in friends who had gone into intellectual property law. After graduating from Caltech, Amirgholizadeh attended the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. She then spent six years as an associate at law firm Sidley Austin before moving to her current position at Gilead in 2013.

In her office at Gilead, Amirgholizadeh sits surrounded by piles of papers, photos of family, and the structure of one of Gilead’s hepatitis C drugs, ledipasvir, on the wall.

She says about her current job, “I like the fact that it’s not just domestic law, but we get to look at a range of international legal issues. Also, I like being involved in strategy and planning and thinking about the business and legal aspects of various issues. How they all fit together globally is fascinating to me.”

Outside work, Amirgholizadeh loves to sing. She started as a child in church, she says, when her father would have her sing a solo before he preached. “I lost all my shyness thanks to that,” she laughs. She continued to sing in various groups at Baylor and Caltech, where singing was her stress relief. She hasn’t joined a group since because of time constraints. “I wouldn’t want to make just a partial effort,” she says. “I would really want to be involved and contribute.”



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